Even before the start of World War II in 1939, reports of terror and murder by the Nazi regime in Germany had drawn the attention of the civilized world. But it was not until the final stages of the war in Europe that the full reality became known. It was then that the American, British, Russian, and other Allied armies began to overrun the network of thousands of concentration camps, labor camps and death camps that dotted the European landscape.
The victims were Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, political dissidents, homosexuals, the mentally retarded and physically handicapped-anyone who did not deserve a place in Hitler's Third Reich. The principal victims, however, were the Jews. Of the millions of Jews who were sent to the camps, historians estimate that less than 100,000 came out alive.
Allied forces happened upon these camps while advancing toward military objectives. The reaction of the soldiers who entered the camps was one of shock, disbelief, and anger. American GIs first came face-to-face with the Nazi system of dehumanization and death when they liberated Ohrdruf in April, 1945. Even as they entered Ohrdruf, these soldiers heard shots ring out as the killings of camp inmates continued to the last possible moment.
Jewish soldiers were well represented among these frontline troops. They were infantrymen, tank crewmen, paratroopers and combat engineers. How did they respond to what they saw? What interaction did they have with the survivors? What effect did this experience have on their lives as Jews as well as Americans? This exhibition attempts to answer these questions.
Who were the liberators? To liberate means to free. Liberators of concentration camps include not only the troops who broke down the gates to the camps, but also support troops who followed immediately afterward to provide medical care, food, clothing and loving-kindness. They too were rescuers. First hand accounts of a cross-section of Jewish liberators, together with their photographs, artifacts and memorabilia, tell this story, camp by camp.
The final section of the exhibition, Love and Renewal, illustrates the close ties and continuing involvement of Jewish soldiers with survivors after the war.
This exhibition serves as a reminder not only of the human capacity for evil, but also the capacity for good. Perhaps in some small way it will contribute to greater sensitivity to the dangers lurking in the world today.GIs RememberNational Museum of American Jewish Military History